Tribunal considers whether atheism a creed

ST. CATHARINES – Is atheism a creed, therefore deserving protection under the Ontario Human Rights Code?

Versions of that question dominated a high-profile tribunal held in St. Catharines Wednesday.

Rene Chouinard seeks to quash a District School Board of Niagara policy allowing third-party religious material distributions in schools.

In the second and final Ontario Human Rights Tribunal hearing date, lawyers representing the DSBN brought up the issue of atheism’s protection from discrimination under the provincial Human Rights Code.

It was among points brought up by the lawyers insisting the distribution policy and its administration did not violate the Code.

“To get in the front door, you need to show that you enjoy the benefit of a protected group,” said lawyer Derek Bell.

“I submit Mr. Chouinard has not established that his beliefs, whether you call it atheism, non-theism … constitutes a creed that is defined in the Code.”

The issue relates to a 2009 incident where Chouinard refused to sign a consent form allowing his daughter to receive a Gideons International Bible at her Grimsby elementary school.

His request to then have an age-appropriate atheist publication distributed to Grade 5 students at the school was turned down — along with the Gideons bible distribution.

A revised board policy allowed distribution of religious texts — and not just Gideon — under strict conditions that include parental consent and approval by the DSBN education director.

The DSBN team later argued should tribunal associate chair David White order a remedy, he shouldn’t rescind that policy, but direct the board to make it Code-compliant.

Chouinard earlier stressed his core argument is the lack of distribution of non-Christian third-party texts at the DSBN. He said the new policy allowing a wider distribution of religious texts hasn’t changed anything.   When asked to focus his discrimination complaint, Chouinard clarified himself.

“We feel the a school board’s offer to distribute Gideon material through this note is discriminatory to me as a parent,” he told White. “I was required to participate in a process that required I divulge my preference to there teacher at least.

“Of course in order to dispute this with himself this has become very public,” he said, adding he believes his daughter was also a victim of discrimination due to the distribution and board actions.

Chouinard added the initial policy affecting his family was discriminatory and the revised policy did not change that.   The remedy — he agreed, when pushed by White’s questioning — was to rescind the DSBN policy and order no religious literature be distributed in its schools.

Lawyers for both the Ontario Human Rights Commission and Canadian Civil Liberties Association also spoke at the hearing as intervenors.   They voiced concerns about the distribution policy and its compliance with provincial human rights and Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Commission lawyer Cathy Pike argued in part the tribunal didn’t need to determine if atheism or secular humanism is a creed.

Their lawyer Sunil Gurmukh spoke of the “sensitive setting of a public school, including the peer pressure and classroom norms, to which children are acutely sensitive.

“When the tribunal is assessing the existence of pressure and compulsion, it must be assessed from the standpoint of the (sensitive) setting of a public school,” he said.

A tribunal decision will be made at a later date, possibly several months from now.

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